Cubs

Irish coaching shuffle pays off for secondary

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Irish coaching shuffle pays off for secondary

Among the plenty of feel-good stories about Notre Dame's championship run is one that hasn't been covered too heavily: All those coaching shifts and additions that happened last winter wound up paying off for the undefeated Irish.

After last season, offensive coordinator Charley Molnar, offensive line coach Ed Warinner and running backs coach Tim Hinton left the program. Chuck Martin was moved from safeties coach to offensive coordinator while Tony Alford shifted from wide receivers to running backs, filling those two holes internally. Veteran position coaches Harry Hiestand and Bob Elliott were brought on to coach Notre Dame's offensive line and safeties, respectively, to round out the staff.

Specifically, the addition of Elliott has been key in guiding the growth of Notre Dame's safeties. That's not to say the other coaching shifts haven't been beneficial -- Zack Martin said a key reason for his 2013 return was getting to play another year under Hiestand, while Everett Golson has been appreciative of his offensive coordinator's tough love.

And Matthias Farley, a greenhorn safety, credited Elliott for steering him through a sharp learning curve.

"It's been monumental in my growth, because coach Elliott has taken time out his days, after practice, his down time in between coaching meetings he'll sit and watch practice film with me after each and every practice he'll critique it and see areas I need to improve on, on and off the field," Farley said. "It's been a huge asset to have him in my corner."

Farley was a player Elliott figured would fit in on special teams when he first evaluated him in the spring. But when Jamoris Slaughter was lost for the season in Week 3, Farley had to step in, and he's done a solid job alongside Zeke Motta since.

Elliott wasn't some unfamiliar face, though. He coached defensive coordinator Bob Diaco and cornerbacks coach Kerry Cooks during each's playing days at Iowa, and brought to Notre Dame 33 seasons of coaching knowledge.

"He's somebody that has a great deal of experience as a coordinator on the BCS level, incredible amount of experience, and he doesn't have an ego," coach Brian Kelly said. "He wants to just fit into the staff dynamics. For us, that's one of our key ingredients to success is to have a staff that puts their egos aside and really works on the development of their players. He's done an incredible job."

While Notre Dame's secondary looked like a major weakness heading into the season, it's grown into a solid group -- even if three of its four starters didn't play much of their current positions in high school. Farley, who was recruited to Notre Dame as a wide receiver, and Bennett Jackson, a high school receiver as well, gave plenty of credit to Elliott and Cooks for their development in 2012.

"A lot of credit needs to go to the coaches and how they've developed us," Farley said. " I have confidence in the fact we can do the roles that are asked of us. Bennett, KeiVarae (Russell) are very athletic, very talented but to also have great coaching behind them is a great combination."

"We would not be where we are without those coaches developing those players to the level they are today," Kelly added.

How close is Ian Happ to rejoining the Cubs?

How close is Ian Happ to rejoining the Cubs?

Is Ian Happ nearing a return to Chicago?

In a surprise move at the end of spring training, the Cubs sent the 24-year-old switch-hitter down to the minor leagues to work on his swing and try to cut down on strikeouts.

Happ's numbers in Iowa don't jump off the page at you (.240/.362/.422), but it looks like he may be turning a corner of late. He homered Monday night then went 4-for-4 with another homer, 2 doubles and 5 RBI in the second game of a doubleheader Wednesday.

That's obviously a very small sample size, however, and even including that, Happ is still struggling to make consistent contact. He has struck out 14 times in 25 at-bats over his last 8 games. 

His overall strikeout percentage on the season is 25.9 percent — a major improvement on the 36.1 percent mark he struggled through in the big leagues last year. But Happ had never struck out more than 23.6 percent of the time in a season coming up through the minor leagues, so that number is still higher than the Cubs would like to see.

"If [the mini hot streak] were sustained, you'd have to really start listening," Joe Maddon said. "I'm following him via video, watching the at-bats. I'm doing that almost daily with him. I know prior to that, he had still had some problems with strikeouts. 

"And then hit a home run the other day and that seems like that's led to this other home run. That would be primarily a call on the front office and the minor-league part [on when to call him up], but I will watch the video. The home run I saw, I liked. I thought he had much better balance on the entire swing."

Obviously the Cubs aren't going to overreact to a couple games and deem Happ ready to return to the big leagues based off a handful of at-bats.

But there's also a solid case to be made that he could help the club in Chicago right now.

Despite a hot start to the season, the Cubs' role players have really fallen off the last few weeks and much of the offensive damage has come from the big boppers (Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Javy Baez, Willson Contreras) recently.

There's no indication Ben Zobrist is coming back anytime soon, as Maddon said Thursday morning he hasn't spoken to the veteran in a couple days. 

David Bote and Jason Heyward have looked better this week, but they were struggling for the first couple weeks of May. 

Daniel Descalso has really been scuffling, hitting .097 with only 1 extra-base hit in May and his defense at second base has been below average.

Then there's Mark Zagunis, who isn't doing much of anything for the Cubs — literally. He hasn't started a game since April 26 and hasn't seen even one inning in the outfield since then, either, serving exclusively as a pinch-hitter for the last month.

So if the Cubs decide soon that Happ is ready to return to the big leagues, they have a simple decision on the roster spot and right now, there might be an avenue to a decent amount of playing time either at second base or the outfield.

Happ may not be the best or most experienced defender at second base, but he's seen some time there in the minors this season (59.2 innings) and he can also play either of the corner infield spots and all three outfield positions.

But would it be prudent for the Cubs to call up Happ if they don't even have room for him to play every day? That could throw a wrench in his development, which is clearly something the organization has been committed to.

Albert Almora Jr. is still easily the best centerfielder on the roster and has been great offensively for the last month, so it's not like he's done anything to deserve falling back into a platoon with Happ in center like they shared for much of 2018.

"It's hard. You would want to [call him up only if there's ample time to play him]," Maddon said. "But if you could morph him in and there's a platoon that's worthwhile, you could do that, also.

"But part of him being [in the minors] right now on a consistent basis is to get these kind of at-bats to get this all worked out and you would not want to lose that, either. But when he were to come back, being that he could hit left-handed obviously permits us to do other things."

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The Bears are getting a different type of nickel cornerback in Buster Skrine

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USA Today

The Bears are getting a different type of nickel cornerback in Buster Skrine

When the Bears’ defense takes the field against Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers on Opening Night, they’ll be returning 9 of the 11 starters that were part of a 2018 squad that was one of the best in Bears’ history. 

One of the few new faces that figure to be among the starting 11 is cornerback Buster Skrine. Gone is Bryce Callahan, who left for Vic Fangio’s Denver team after spending the first four years of his career in Chicago. Though Bears’ scouts have had their eye on Skrine for a few seasons now, it was his more palatable three-year, $16.5 million contract -- compared to Callahan’s three-year, $21 million contract -- that finally got him in house. 

“Me and Buster came out the exact same year, and I’ve watched him,” Prince Amukamara said after OTAs on Wednesday afternoon. “He actually played with my best friend and he would always talk about how fast Buster is -- especially when Buster played gunner. 

“I’ve always watched him, and I feel like he’s very similar to Bryce [Callahan] by being quick and being active. I’m definitely happy with the pick up.” 

Once considered a spot to place the third-best, less-athletic cornerback, no position has seen it's value increase so dramatically over the last decade. Offenses are changing dramatically; no team saw more three receiver sets in 2018 than the Bears’ defense. Per Sharp Stats, opposing offenses lined up in 11 personnel against Chicago 78% of the time. The next closest was the Chiefs at 71%, and the NFL average is 65%. 

“I think nickel is a different ball game,” Amukamara added. “I would say it can be one of the hardest positions on the field, just because you’re on an island, but the receiver has so much room to work with. Plus, it’s a lot of mental gymnastics, so you’ve got to know when you’re blitzing, know when you’re running, and so we put a lot on our nickel.” 

Despite not being considered part of a what teams have traditionally considered base defense, the pass-happy nature of this era in the NFL has all but mandated that nickel corners are on the field for most of the defensive snaps. It’s no coincidence that before breaking his foot against the Rams in Week 12, Callahan was on pace to set a career-high in snap percentage. 

“Nowadays, you see a lot more sub packages,” Bears defensive backs coach Deshea Townsend said. “You’re probably playing 70% in sub during a game now… Otherwise, it hasn’t really changed - he just plays more. That’s the thing - he is technically a starter. He’s probably going to run on the field first in a lot of games, and by rule that’s a starter.

“One thing about the nickel position is that you’ve got to do a little bit of both. You can’t just go out on 3rd down and cover and run the option routes. Now they’re going to hand off the ball and find out where you’re at and you’re going to have to make a tackle. That’s the difference in the position now - it’s a first and second down type of guy that has to be able to do it all.”

While Skrine isn’t considered as good a cover corner as Callahan, Skrine’s pass rush and run defense looks pretty similar. Per Pro Football Focus, Skrine’s run defense graded out significantly higher (80.7) than Callahan’s (57.8). 

“With Buster, it’s about his playing experience,” Townsend added. “He’s a guy who will mix it up in the run. He can blitz, and he’s reliable. He’s tough.”